Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Taylor, Cecil

One of the founding fathers of avant-garde jazz, pianist Cecil Taylor redefined the role of the piano via the free jazz movement he helped to establish.

Born March 15 or 25, 1929 in Long Island City, New York, Taylor started playing piano at the age of six. Despite his subsequent reputation as the ultimate musical rule-breaker, he studied at both the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory, and grew up loving the sounds of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.

His first efforts as a jazz musician involved work in early-'50s swing combos with Johnny Hodges and Hot Lips Page. With soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles, Taylor formed his own band in 1956, which was nearly as notable for its racial integration (still uncommon at the time) as for its progressive approach.

Taylor's first album was 1956's Jazz Advance, which still had one foot in jazz tradition, even as it took the harmonic and structural innovations of artists like Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and expanded them into a new musical vocabulary.

Even into the early '60s, for all his innovation, Taylor still frequently recorded tunes by Ellington and other standard-bearers.

The major shift in Taylor's music toward a full-frontal assault of avant-garde experimentalism really began around 1962, with saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and trailblazing drummer Sunny Murray entering the band. Traditional song forms went out the window, and a dizzying array of tone clusters and abstract rhythmic and melodic motifs became the order of the day.

The fully freewheeling Cecil Taylor Unit spent six months playing in Europe, but when they returned to the states, their sound was still far too advanced to fit into even the progressive New York jazz scene. Taylor struggled to find work, but gigs were few and far between, the band sometimes going months at a stretch between gigs. Since he couldn't find a niche within the existing jazz world, Taylor started creating one for himself, helping to found the DIY organization known as the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964.

Cecil Taylor: Unit Structures

By 1966, the rest of the New York jazz community had finally caught up with Taylor's pioneering work to the extent that he was able to unleash his no-holds-barred sound on the world at large via two Blue Note releases that year: Unit Structures, including tracks such as "Steps" and "Tales (8 Whisps)," and Conquistador. The group included the two-bass lineup of Alan Silva and Henry Grimes, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and a horn section that matched Lyons variously with trumpeters Bill Dixon and Eddie Gale and saxophonist Ken McIntyre.

these unprecedented albums became free-jazz milestones, taking listeners by storm and signaling that the old order was definitively dead and buried. For all his groundbreaking, world-changing work during this period, though, the still resolutely uncommercial Taylor continued to struggle to make ends meet throughout the decade.

In the '70s, former Conservatory student Taylor took an educational path to help keep himself afloat, working as an artist-in-residence at various schools, including the University of of Wisconsin, Antioch College, and Glassboro State College. In 1973, Taylor was given a Guggenheim Fellowship, which further alleviated his financial difficulties. He began performing and recording, both solo and with his band, at a more productive rate. One of his finest solo statements, the live 1974 recording Silent Tongues, shows the vitality and fire Taylor exuded at this time. In 1979, Taylor was given national exposure of a kind rarely afforded to avant-garde jazz musicians; he was invited to perform for President Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn in 1979. 1981 saw the release of Imagine The Sound, a documentary film about Taylor's music.

The end of an era came for Taylor when longtime collaborator Lyons, who had been working with the pianist regularly for over two decades, passed away from lung cancer in 1986. He was memorialized on record by Cecil that year with the Soul Note release For Olim, dedicated to Lyons' “living spirit.” Taylor was spending more time than ever in Europe by this point, and the culmination was a month-long music festival in Germany that centered around him. Over the course of this sprawling event, Taylor performed with the cream of the European free-improv crop, including drummers Han Bennink and Tony Oxley, guitarist Derek Bailey, and many others. The performances were recorded, and issued in the form of the 11-disc box set Cecil Taylor In Berlin '88, a stunning, mammoth document (also available as individual discs) of a shining moment in Taylor's career. After this monumental experience, Oxley began working with Taylor on a regular basis. Back in the US, a younger generation of musicians who had learned from Taylor's breakthroughs were finding their own place in the jazz scene, and one of the most exceptional of these players, bassist William Parker, had become an important member of Taylor's band. With Oxley, they formed the “Feel Trio,” with which Taylor worked into the '90s; this trio was responsible for some of Taylor's finest latter-day recordings. At the same time, the mercurial pianist also worked in formats ranging from the trio plus saxophone to full-scale large-ensemble. In 1991, further cementing his status as the Grand Old Man of free jazz, Taylor won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

Even in his sixties, the tireless Taylor continued working with just as much verve and inspiration as ever, releasing over a dozen albums in the '90s. Underlining Taylor's link to the world of modern-classical “New Music,” he undertook a project for the Library of Congress in 1998 with violinist Mat Maneri, in which Taylor worked from a written score. The results were finally (appropriately) issued on the classical-oriented Bridge label in 2004. At the edge of turning 70, Taylor made an anomalous big-label appearance, recording with drummer Elvin Jones and saxman Dewey Redman on the well received 1999 Verve album Momentum Space. In 2004, Taylor was honored with another documentary film, Chris Felver's All The Notes, which was made available on DVD two years later.

Select discography:

Jazz Advance (1955); Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come (1962); Unit Structures (1966); Conquistador (1966); Student Studies (1966); Silent Tongues (1974); Dark Unto Themselves (1976); Cecil Taylor (1978); 3 Phasis (1978); Live In the Black Forest (1978); It Is In The Brewing Luminous (1980); Garden (1981); Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) (1984); For Olim (1986); Chinampas (1987); Erzulie Maketh Scent (1988); Leaf Palm Hand (1988); Remembrance (1988); Riobec (1988); The Hearth (1988); Cecil Taylor In Berlin '88 (1988); Looking (Berlin Version) (1989); Qu'a: Live at the Iridium, Vol. 1 (1998); Momentum Space (1999); Algonquin (2004); All The Notes (2004).

Contributor: Jim Allen